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  TWO FILM GEEKS + 10 FAVORITE MOVIES OF 2003 = 5,738 WORDS.  
   
   
 

Since the early days of high school, the day before the Oscar nominations has been special for me and my oldest friend Tim Grierson -- who moonlights as the co-editor of The Simon and a bi-weekly columnist for Knot Magazine. At a very young age, Tim and I became obsessed with film, and perhaps even more so with lists. We scoured through every top 10 list we could find, and we watched everything we could get our hands on -- not easy at 14 -- so we could make our own lists.

At first, we tried to put together our lists when everyone else did, at the end of the year. Problem was, the best movies weren't likely to make it within 400 miles in Mattoon, Illinois, by the end of the year, not a chance. We were lucky if the Ernest Saves Easter movie had finally left by Christmas Day.

So we bought ourselves some time. We set a day when we would reveal each other's top 10 to one another: the day before the Oscar nominations. I hereby present Tim with my top 10 list for 2003.

-- Will.

 

 
   
 

#10. 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle
Has a movie ever been more in tune with our deepest fears today than the first half hour of 28 Days Later? A man walks alone through the streets of a major metropolis, deserted, drained of all life. He sees calamitous headlines, burnt remnants of forgotten hustle and bustle and a city square's kiosk, full of pleading flyers for those lost and missing. Have you seen my son? Please call 212-612-6768. The film is about a "rage" virus that has savaged London, but it taps into horrors more real -- and more immediate. Sure, the end is a little too preachy -- don't you get it? The true monster is man! -- but finding a new way to scare the pants off you is no small feat.

 

 
   
 

#9. Lost in Translation, directed by Sofia Coppola
It's easy to forget in all the fuss since its release, but Lost in Translation is, at its core, a very small, quiet, private story. Two Americans, stuck in their own lives in their own singular ways, come across each other in a foreign land, and uncover truths about each other than are only accessible by strangers. So silent as to be almost inert, Coppola is wise to give Bill Murray, who understands this character perhaps even better than his director, plenty of room to roam. He never fails her. Not as innocent as he'd like to be but sadder than he should be, Murray's delicate balancing act keeps the film from veering too far toward overly precious. Scarlett Johannsen has been criticized for being somewhat of an opaque cipher, but that's kind of the point; she has no idea where she's going, or how she got here in the first place, but she, like Murray, discovers a tranquil spark within herself that you're sure she'll hang onto long after the film's action is over. This is not a big film, and its somewhat overblown praise should not disguised that. This is a story about two lost people, people who mean well, who start realizing that they can be found, that there's still hope.

 

 
   
 

#8. Northfork, directed by Michael Polish
What a bizarre, beautiful movie. Lost among louder, more garish "independent" films, this askew drama from the filmmaking brothers Mark and Michael Polish (whose wonderful Twin Falls Idaho remains tragically forgotten) was unlike any film I can remember seeing. Its plot is minimal and just a jumping board: a sleepy 1950s Montana town is about to be flooded to create lakefront property, and dark-suited, stained-soul "Guardian Angels" (led by an understated James Woods) are dispatched to evict straggling residents of a soon-to-be-dead city. Meanwhile, a dying child, being attended to by a scraggly preacher (Nick Nolte), has angelic visions of his own in his last days. Sound like a downer? The movie is too hushed to be so simply classified. So many heavenly images here: A church with no back wall, overlooking a dug-up cemetery signifying an inability to run from the past; three forked roads, leading to nowhere; and, most strikingly, an ark made by a bigamist, a failed attempt to overcome man's inherent inability to overcome nature's (and man's) fury. What is this movie about? That's up to you. I see it as a poetic ode to man's impotence. But that's just me. Just absorb the visuals, and allow it all to sink in. I suspect you'll notice something different, perhaps each time.

 

 
   
 

#7. The Fog of War, directed by Errol Morris
An anti-war movie for warmongers. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who presided over almost every major event in our country for 40 years, from the bombing of Hiroshima to the Bay of Pigs to Vietnam, looks back at his life and career and finds fewer answers than he knew coming in. McNamara is so stubbornly resistant to look within himself that it seems to strike him as a surprise when he realizes that he, in fact, might be a war criminal. But to the victor go the spoils. Like all Morris' films, this feels like anything but a staid documentary; it's more like a hindsight thriller. It doesn't search for quick fixes. It just looks at a thoughtful man who might be responsible for more deaths than any other human, and shows him as someone who was convinced, all along, that he was doing the right thing. Was he? Hey, we won, didn't we? Our leaders could do far worse than watching this movie. Would they look at their actions with more objectivity than McNamara could ever muster? I fear not.

 

 
   
 

#6. The School of Rock, directed by Richard Linklater
Does Jack Black ever need to make another movie? What a whirling dervish he is in this film. Flanked by a game Joan Cusack and a cast of kids who are somehow demographically diverse yet stacked with distinct individual personalities (and the kids can act too), Black and director Richard Linklater take a tired genre (teacher who inspires kids and learns about himself in the process) and turn it into a rollicking celebration of rock and roll. It's a stock character film full of people who don't know they're stock. What makes this work is Linklater's seeming belief that no one has ever made one of these movies before; not a single frame of this movie appears contrived. Why, maybe rock and roll can save your soul. And of course there's Black. He doesn't let up a bit, a firecracker with no fuse. He throws himself full bore into every moment, and not only does he carry the movie, he doesn't become tiresome in the slightest. If only real rock stars had such devotion! It took me half an hour into the film to realize my foot had been tapping the whole time, and another two hours after it was over to get me to stop.

 

 
   
 

#5. House of Sand and Fog, directed by Vadim Perelman
The best tragedies do not concern good vs. evil. They're about single-minded people, absolutely certain they are doing what is just, forcing themselves down a path clearly marked for disaster. You have Jennifer Connelly, playing a young woman who can't get out of her own way. She messes up everything in her life -- as well as she might mean, it's not difficult to see why her husband would leave her -- but when a banking mistake lands her family home in the hands of a foreign stranger, she has the brunt of moral certitude behind her. This is my house. You have Ben Kingsley, playing a former Iranian general in exile, prideful, trying to rebuild his family's life in a new country. Hey, it's not his fault a banking mistake essentially handed him a new home. He deserves this house. This is my house. With these two strong-willed, flawed yet good-hearted, people on a collision course, the reckless intervention of a misguided and disturbed police officer (Ron Eldard) is the perfect powder keg. You feel for every character in this film, even with their defects, and you ache as you see they're sprinting headstrong into oblivion. Not a single frame is wasted; this is spare, elegant storytelling that will break your heart.

 

 
   
 

#4. Spellbound, directed by Jeffrey Blitz
A perfect parable of, and for, America. In microcosm, the National Spelling Bee is a perfect model of our country. Hard work, mixed with natural intelligence, splashed with geographic circumstance, will bring you to the top of your chosen field, where there are others, who have worked just as hard, ready to do battle. We meet nine children in the course of Spellbound. We see their families, who sometimes push them too hard and sometimes don't understand their children at all. We see their friends, who can only dream of being so single-minded. We see their hometowns, which range from the most flush suburb to the most hardscrabble inner-city. And then, after we've learned to love them all, they come together and wipe each other out. The last 45 minutes of this film are a gripping footrace toward elimination; who would have thought the difference between an "E" and an "I" could be so suspenseful? Exhilarating filmmaking; I'll be watching the National Spelling Bee from now on, and I'll be rooting for everyone.

 

 
   
 

#3. Kill Bill, Vol. 1, directed by Quentin Tarantino
An two-hour orgy of spectacle, guided by a master with a human touch that transcends all the mayhem. Is it possible for a film to be any cooler? What makes this more than just a hipster gorefest, though, is how much Tarantino believes in what he's doing; every second feels like it's sending its creator into rhapsody. It's impossible not to be swept along with him. Sure, it might have been more fun if we would have just gotten the whole shebang, both parts, in one swoop; it's not like the film/series shows restraint in any other level, after all. But no complaining here. What's perhaps most impressive is how the notoriously dialogue-heavy Tarantino relies so heavily on his visuals (remember how spare Reservoir Dogs was? He has come a long, long way); the movie just flies along, one stunning set piece to another, not pausing for anything even resembling a breath. And say what you will about how lasting the characters are, but I, for one, cannot wait for Vol. 2.

 

 
   
 

#2. Monster, directed by Patty Jenkins
Of all the actresses on Earth, Charlize Theron would seem like the least likely to play Aileen Wournos. Wournos is not just ugly and damaged; the ultimate irony of her murderous crusade is that she's strangely mannish. Her shoulders slouch, she's a-twitter with fidgety energy and she's, frankly, HUGE. It just makes Theron's performance all the more breathtaking. Sure, you can't recognize her, but that's hardly the point. It's acting free of any actory mannerisms, simply embodying a character who is evil but adhering to her warped vision of justice. And after what she'd been through, it's not difficult to see why. Theron dominates the entire film, alternately heartbreaking, scary and strangely vulnerable. The film is smart enough not to give us any overarching moral; this is a woman who did horrible things, and here might be why. Christina Ricci has been criticized for her waifish, naive character, but she's playing the role exactly right; she is the way Wournos sees her, as a figure worthy of salvation. Ricci's character doesn't have much to do or say, but that's the way it should be; this is Wournos' vision, and the way Ricci actually is matters far less than how Wournos imagines her. The movie is a perfect balancing act: You despise Wournos while sympathizing with her, sadness riding shotgun with digust.

 

 
   
 

#1. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, directed by Peter Jackson
Naysayers -- and there were a few -- claimed to anyone within earshot that the first two films of Peter Jackson's incredible trilogy were technical marvels but lacked heart, any moral shading. Good guys vs. bad guys, they said, and that's it. They were misguided and picking nits, but it's funny how you don't hear them saying that anymore. The wrapup of perhaps our greatest three-film series has everything: Gleefully unhinged battle scenes, a deeply epic sweep -- after three films, I feel like I could navigate Middle Earth without a map -- and some genuine emotional heft. When Sam tells Frodo he'll carry him to the mountaintop to dispose of the cursed ring, you <EM>feel</EM> it, a small moment rising huge among the grandeur. For the first time in the trilogy, our characters seem in legitimate danger, absolute peril (having not read the books, I did genuinely wonder if Frodo had indeed been killed by that horrifying spider). How could you not root for them? Sure, the last half hour unfortunately allows the film to crawl to a conclusion rather than sprint, but after nine hours, it's hard to argue Jackson hasn't earned the right. And more than any other film this year, The Return of the King will be worth revisiting for decades to come. Jackson has invented a whole new world and made it his own almost as much as he had made it ours. What more do you want from a movie?

***

It was a year of great debuts. Folks who used to just be actors, TV commercial directors, and screenwriters made the leap into the director's chair and turned out some exceptional work. Plus, foreign filmmakers showed us our country (and their own) in startling new ways. And, of course, there were the old masters, proving they could do it again one more time. Will, this is my top 10 list for 2003. Let's get started with Number 10.

-- Tim.

 

 
   
  #10. The Station Agent, directed by Tom McCarthy
Like foreign films with the thinnest of plotlines, The Station Agent is about small character moments and simple revelations. There's nothing momentous going on here: Peter Dinklage's dwarf is a man dealing with his obvious height limitations but also his refusal to interact with life. Likewise, Bobby Cannavale's hot dog vendor masks his loneliness with a jovial spirit that evokes a more generous Vince Vaughn from Swingers. And Patricia Clarkson's artist has an on-again/off-again relationship with her ex while shouldering a terrible secret. Mix 'em all together and see what happens.

This plot description is, of course, the height of Sundance pretension. Everybody's got his or her issue; everybody's just a little quirky -- what could be zanier?!? But McCarthy, an actor himself, doesn't go in for cute. His film is that rare, precious mixture of seemingly real individuals living life honestly. No one's great emotional hurdle will be resolved by the film's end. All you can hope is that these three people's sweet friendship can somehow overcome life's other disappointments.

It's unusual to have an actor's first directorial outing be this un-actorly. Dinklage, in the normally showy "cripple" role, shames most thespians who take on a "handicapped" role to prove their chops. Dinklage is a dwarf, and so he doesn't have to spend any time "performing" the role. He gets us past his height immediately. All we notice is the character's humanity; all we recognize is the character's tightly bound bundle of regret, anger, and longing. Meanwhile, Cannavale and Clarkson are the friends any lost soul would covet.

A Sundance film with no hype, other than good reviews, The Station Agent is one small great scene after another.

 

 
   
  #9. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, directed by Peter Weir
The trick to Peter Weir's absorbing film is its you-are-there veracity. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World utterly convinces you of its Napoleonic-Wars timeframe; the only question then is to make the mundane daily business of a naval vessel compelling. And while few can fault the terrific cat-and-mouse chases and grand battle scenes, the lulls between the action inspired complaints in some camps. Did Weir, Russell Crowe, and Paul Bettany spend too much time with maritime minutiae and digressions to the Galapagos? Yes, if you're looking at this movie as a straight war film. No, if you see it the way Weir does: a portrait of a captain and his crew sharing in an historic moment of naval warfare.

If you're with Weir, then you walk out of the film talking about the friendship between Crowe's Capt. Aubrey and Bettany's Dr. Maturin, a spirited rivalry every bit as riveting as the gun battles. Maturin can reach the captain in ways none of the other men can, and even he wonders if Aubrey is beyond reason at points. After the Oscar-baiting manipulation of A Beautiful Mind, Crowe and Bettany demonstrate a stronger, smarter relationship here, full of twists and surprises. With these gents in command, the rest of the movie gives us a penetrating look at one ship's culture and social mores. Something this old-fashioned easily could have been boring. Weir instead made an action film filled with rousing, intriguing set pieces.

 

 
   
 

#8. The Company, directed by Robert Altman
All we can ask of our aging masters is that they occasionally dazzle us with their formidable talent, just to remind us of what they can still achieve. Many felt Robert Altman did just that with Gosford Park, a clever but routine roundelay of British aristocracy and murder. Sure, Altman did a fine job, but it almost seemed too easy. His heart wasn't fully invested in the material.

Now comes The Company, his ravishing salute to the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. With a fluid, impressionistic narrative style, Altman does for the dance film what Seinfeld did for the sitcom. You remember Seinfeld's famous slogan: No Hugging, No Learning? That's a decent description of how Altman equally tries to avoid all those lame let's-put-on-a-show clichés. There's no aging star trying to give one more great performance. There's no up-and-coming dancer trying to break through. There is no wise mentor who shows everyone the way and has inspirational messages for anyone who bothers to listen. There isn't even a big, show-stopping finale production that the whole film is building toward. Instead, Altman twist conventions, creating the archetypes only to mess with your expectations.

While Altman cares about his characters, he doesn't coddle them: Neve Campbell hurts herself onstage; a young dreamer gets his heart broken without a moment's sympathy; the aging star is on her own; Malcolm McDowell's artistic director loves his pupils but has to make the company's financial vitality his first priority. With its impassioned, fair-minded, panoramic mixture of dancers and random events, The Company gets as close as any film in memory to the sense of an artistic community, a crucible of egos and disappointments and people who have sacrificed everything for a dream.

And when film scholars eventually make a list of the great scenes Altman has given to the cinema, I can only pray they recall Neve Campbell's gorgeous dance to the tune of "My Funny Valentine." To an awed outdoor audience, she gives a performance that's so controlled and focused that she doesn't even realize that an approaching thunderstorm is putting her very life in jeopardy.

 

 
   
 

#7. House of Sand and Fog, directed by Vadim Perelman
Jennifer Connelly won an Oscar for her thankless loyal-wife role in A Beautiful Mind, but her work in House of Sand and Fog is much better. To be honest, it's nothing less than amazing. As Kathy Nicolo, a depressed recovering alcoholic, Connelly proudly plays a hopeless loser, the type of person whom we try to avoid at all costs, lest she bring her bad luck into our personal orbit.

Blaming everyone else, desperately grasping at anyone foolish enough to help her, Kathy is a classic well-meaning fool, a mess with a good heart. But Vadim Perelman, the film's director and co-writer, refuses to judge her. With what could almost be described as heartbreaking patience, Perelman closely examines this hapless woman's life in relation to Ben Kingsley's Massoud Amir Behrani, an Iranian immigrant trying to start a new life in America.

If you only watched the limp trailers for House of Sand and Fog, you'd be convinced this film was little more than a hand-wringing account of two people fighting over the ownership of a house. This is not inherently the stuff of great drama, but Perelman -- working from Andre Dubus II's novel -- uses this template as a means to discuss ambition, race, morality, and greed. Neither lionizing the immigrant's good heart nor demonizing the American's stupidity, Perelman sees both sides at all times. Ultimately, it's difficult not to feel empathy for these flawed characters fighting over a seemingly unimportant piece of property. As with sports in Hoop Dreams or a high school presidency in Election, the house in Perelman's movie represents the American Dream in concrete, competitive terms.

 

 
   
 

#6. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, directed by Peter Jackson
The first six hours of Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings adventure were sprawling, sweeping, and kinda boring. Big fight scenes, lotsa effects, little in the way of character development. All that changed with The Return of the King, a film that's easily the best third part of any film trilogy, which is perhaps not saying too much. But while the first two installments seemed permanently rutted in an ever-increasing sequence of huge action set pieces that went on forever, this new film has actual consequences. Gollum, Sam, Frodo, Aragorn … finally we get a sense of stakes and grandeur.

In turn, Jackson gets the best performances of the trilogy. For as long as I can remember, I've been making pot shots at Sean Astin's acting. He's repeatedly played ineffectual, wimpy characters … easily forgotten and unmemorable. Here, as Frodo's loyal, loving friend Sam, Astin redeems all of that. Nothing in the first two segments can prepare you for the emotional underpinnings Astin brings to The Return of the King. While Elijah Wood's Frodo struggles with his considerable responsibility of destroying the ring, Sam protects and cares for his friend, putting his own life in danger again and again. To be it more bluntly, this sincere love story between two Hobbits beats anything Aragorn and what's-her-name ever generate.

And as his characters reach their destinies, Jackson mounts his greatest battle scenes of the trilogy. Simultaneously referencing and shredding memories of The Empire Strikes Back, Lawrence of Arabia, and Braveheart, Jackson deserves his "visionary" accolades this time out. His breadth and control of the material finally comes together. I'll forgive an overlong denouement when the rest is so riveting.

 

 
   
 

#5. 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle
Social commentary came in many different forms this year at the movies: Mystic River's bone-dry look at violence and undernourished female roles, Capturing the Friedmans' creepy collection of home movies and suburban disgust, 21 Grams' and Elephant's portrayals of America after the shock of September 11 and Columbine. But none of them were scarier or more thrilling than Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. An apocalyptic cautionary tale disguised as a really awesome zombie movie, 28 Days Later mercilessly eviscerates your nerves.

Used to be that horror movies incorporated scares to raise issues about modern society -- they weren't just made to pile on the gore. At his most nimbly confident since Shallow Grave, Boyle sets up an doomsday scenario of a killer virus that's almost wiped the earth clean of humans. The few folks left alive are forced to fight off menacing, fast-running zombies who can infect you in seconds. (None of that slow-moving virus nonsense of earlier generations; these days, movie viruses get ya like that!)

Working largely with unknowns, Boyle shot the movie on DV, adding to its surreal, nightmarish quality. And touching on the zeitgeist, 28 Days Later has just the right amounts of petulance and defiance for our post-9/11 world. Nothing can be trusted, everyone's on their own, the end is indeed extremely fucking nigh. And, worst of all, the authority figures still remaining are all nuts. With these realities in place, can you blame Cillian Murphy's survivor for going a little Lord of the Flies on us near the end?

 

 
   
 

#4. Finding Nemo, directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich
Pixar is the most trustworthy brand in Hollywood, and with Finding Nemo they've made their best film since Toy Story, the granddaddy that began it all. Always, the Pixar team -- this time spearheaded by co-director/co-writer Andrew Stanton -- interweaves children's topics with adult concerns, friendly visuals with knowing jokes. But by abandoning Randy Newman's reliably amiable score for a darker, richer one by cousin Thomas Newman, Finding Nemo makes its intentions known. For this essentially is not a child's story.
While it does involve a father looking for his lost son, the movie is terrifying and funny in adult terms. The movie agrees with Marlin (voiced brilliantly by Albert Brooks) that the world is filled with scary, dangerous things. And yet, as endorsed by Dory (the equally great Ellen DeGeneres), parents have to find the courage to trust their children to grow up -- they have to learn that they can't protect their offspring forever. It's the sort of challenging moral you don't find in many animated films.

Finding Nemo will probably have to resign itself to a lowly Best Animated Film Oscar. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to forget Brooks, DeGeneres, and a terrific script that sends Marlin on a quest that could rival the one Jude Law trudges through in Cold Mountain but is infinitely more thrilling and illuminating. At the end of the year, The Triplets of Belleville was widely lauded for its edgy style and tone, but critics shouldn't confuse a unique voice for a wholly compelling film. Finding Nemo is the more corporate, conventional tale, but there's nothing second-rate about a studio movie this moving and this meaningful.

 

 
   
 

#3. City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles
City of God has been compared to the work of Scorsese and Tarantino, but I don't think either director has managed something as haunting as what Fernando Meirelles accomplished in his debut work. Instead, I think of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's similarly eye-opening debut, Amores Perros. Both films took American audiences to an exotic locale thick with local flavor but also rife with poverty and crime. But while Amores Perros leaned heavier on character than social milieu, Meirelles deftly merges the two.

But this is no neorealist tale of economic hardship. City of God is the inventive, virtuoso brainchild of a former commercial director with something on his mind. His tale of Rio de Janiero's slums and the kids who became its thug bosses is both sobering and exciting. Scorsese mapped out similar terrain with his lowlife flicks, Mean Streets and Goodfellas, but Marty always seemed too enamored with the world he was depicting. Meirelles eyes his main protagonists, who form the Tender Trio as a means to survive their own mean streets, with compassion, but he sees them clearly as well. And unlike Scorsese, who was always deficient in determining causes for societal behavior, Meirelles makes his point clear. The drama of City of God exists because such slums were permitted to exist, were created as a way to keep the poor away from the wealthy. And that sense of injustice runs through this deeply moral tale. How often do you get riveting filmmaking that's tied to such a significant story?

Because the foreign film branch of the Academy Awards did not select City of God for consideration last year, not enough people got the chance to see this phenomenal film. (As with documentaries, it often takes a nomination to get specialty films like this more recognition.) And looking at some of the simpleminded fare that got selected instead of Meirelles' sobering tale, you have to wonder what it takes to get a message as important as this one to the masses.

 

 
   
 

#2. Shattered Glass, directed by Billy Ray
What's the biggest misconception about Billy Ray's terrific Shattered Glass? That it'll only appeal to journalists? That, in the wake of Jayson Blair, these types of corrupt-reporter stories don't seem so shocking anymore? That, playing Stephen Glass, Hayden Christensen wasn't likable enough to fool the staff of The New Republic? That Ray doesn't give us enough information to allow us to understand what motivated Glass to fabricate whole stories while rising up the ranks of "it" journalists?

Misunderstood, thrilling, and cautionary, Shattered Glass is an exceptional example of what independent cinema can still produce. No gimmicks like the half-biopic/half-documentary of American Splendor. No self-satisfied pretension like Lost in Translation. And certainly not the utter vacuum of thought that is Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Rather, Ray's film introduces us to every office's worst nightmare: the social-climbing, go-getting, seemingly benign putz. I've never met the real Stephen Glass, and so I have no opinions on how accurate Ray's and Christensen's portrayal of him is. All I know is that the filmmakers have done a superb job of showing how ethics get pushed aside in the world of journalism when reporters started thinking they were bigger than the stories.

Owen Gleiberman made the astute observation that Christensen's Glass is very much a talented Mr. Ripley for our time: a fishy charmer who pretends to be harmless but is sneakily up to no good. Intentionally, and correctly, Ray doesn't offer a lot of needless backstory to "explain" Glass' motivations. We can supply them ourselves: greed, ambition, ego, narcissism, approval, whatever else your shrink tells you that your problem is. And Christensen works extremely well to give Glass the right bland exterior. At worst, this kid's just a suck-up, a dork, a talented geek. Who would suspect him of such crimes and misdemeanors?

Ray fashions the world of The New Republic as a dynamic, incestuous fun house of backstabbing and suspicion. You have the groupies who rally around Glass and his talent. You have the unsuccessful writers who long to be as colorful and liked as Glass. You have the competition and the constant rejections. It's a universe as vivid as Peter Weir's British ship or Meirelles' slums.

Promoted to editor, to the chagrin of everyone there, Peter Sarsgaard's Chuck Lane is the man who realizes Glass' lies and has to do something about them. In this battle of lovable geek versus honorable pariah, Ray has crafted something more rarely seen on stage, what Gene Siskel would call a movie of ideas. What Ray has also done is create a fascinating character study of a young man who seemed incapable of realizing precisely what he had done wrong until it was too late. Like The Talented Mr. Ripley, part of the suspense comes from watching a guilty man desperately try to avoid his persecution. We know it's coming, even he knows it's coming, but maybe he can still get free?

In a time when journalists are becoming celebrities, it's no surprise that the sort of debacle Shattered Glass portrays happens. What's amazing is that it doesn't happen more often.

 

 
   
 

#1. Stone Reader, directed by Mark Moskowitz
Highly personal to the point of almost being a home movie, Mark Moskowitz's Stone Reader traces the filmmaker's quest to find Dow Mossman, an author who wrote one book, The Stones of Summer, back in the early '70s.

Moskowitz read an impassioned review at the time in The New York Times Review of Books, picked up the book, and couldn't even finish it. Later, he tried again. He fell in love with it this time. So much so that he got obsessed. Had the author written anything else? Nope. What happened to him? Nobody knew. Had the guy vanished? Was he dead? How could a guy write such a great book and then just disappear?

Stone Reader is Moskowitz's journey to track Mossman down. But more than just a missing-person investigation, Stone Reader lays bare the inner workings of fandom. If a movie like The Company illustrates the sacrifices and talent that artistry demand, then Stone Reader shows the other side. Moskowitz, a guy who makes his living creating political-campaign ads, has constructed a valentine to obsessives. Forget the people who just sorta "like" movies or books or music -- Moskowitz and his collection of friends, editors, publishers, and writers have devoted their lives in one capacity or another to an artform they adore.

While it might seem like a weird combination at first, a film about literature is actually exceptionally well suited for this sort of documentary. The best books create such distinctive characters, voices, locales, and ideas that you can understand why some people keep rereading their favorites just to immerse themselves in a particular world again. Even a non-reader like me can relate to Moskowitz's close affinity to Mossman, how he seems to be looking for his separated-at-birth twin.

But Moskowitz is not just some overzealous fan. He's a man going through a sort of existential crisis. Why does this book speak to him so profoundly? Why does almost no one else like the book? Why is he wasting his life looking for Mossman? In reality, Moskowitz is speaking to human beings' mysterious fascination with other human beings' creations. How can someone living so far away -- maybe of a different gender, nationality, or age group -- be able to express thoughts I feel so clearly? Does that connection mean we aren't so alone in the world? If I meet the person who created this, will he have some sort of answer for my life? Does that person really know me, or did he just write a good book I happened to like?

With these questions and so many more, Stone Reader taps into something basic in the human condition. Moskowitz's filmic journey to find an author given up for dead ranks up there with all those classic tales of a man going up the river to gain wisdom from a mysterious, larger-than-life character. Few of these yarns have resolved themselves so perfectly.

It's such a good movie that I found myself attempting something I rarely do anymore: buying books to read.